Monday, 1 July 2019

Is cotton wool bad for the environment?

effects of cotton production on environment

Cotton wool is a staple in most households, especially those that have female residents. I personally use cotton wool pads everyday when taking my make-up off, that got me thinking, how bad is cotton wool for the environment?

How is cotton wool made?

Cotton grows on the cotton shrub and looks remarkably like your little cotton balls growing on twiggy sticks in a field. In short, the little cotton bolls are harvested and are passed through several machines that separate the cotton from the seeds and debris. If you are after a more in depth explanation, I will have disappointed you. But the point of this post was to explore if cotton wool is a handy little product, or a naughty little item best avoided, so lets get onto that.

Is cotton wool biodegradable and can it go in the compost bin?

Like most products, the first thing to consider is are there other chemicals or substances present or are you using 100% cotton wool. Generally I buy my cotton wool pads from Wilko and I checked that they are pure cotton wool, which is positive as cotton wool is a natural fibre so it will biodegrade.
Sadly it isn't as simple as that though, because what do we generally use cotton wool for? Most women will use it to remove make-up, nail polish or tinting products. What difference does that make I hear you ask, well quite a lot if you are wanting to compost your used cotton wool. Adding chemicals onto the cotton wool means you can't really put it into your compost bin as it will introduce those chemicals into the compost eco system, which won't do it any good at all. So that means your cotton balls will have to be binned.

Can cotton wool be flushed down the loo?

Absolutely not! Cotton wool doesn't break down like toilet paper does, it can build up in your plumbing and cause blockages in sewage systems. If you haven't seen the horror that is a fatberg I encourage you to go and look it up but not whilst you're eating your dinner!

Can cotton wool be recycled?

No unfortunately it can't be recycled, another reason it's losing serious brownie points. Cotton wool may be convenient but it seems to be problematic to dispose of.

Is cotton wool environmentally friendly?

The cotton shrub is native to subtropical regions like Africa, Egypt, the America's and India, however China is currently the largest producer of cotton making 23 million tonnes per year. So in terms of how far the majority of your cotton wool has travelled, it's not exactly just around the corner is it?

Cotton production is also the most pesticide intensive crop in the world, which causes serious repercussions to the soil, surrounding biodiversity and the run off of pesticide from the fields often ends up polluting nearby waterways. This is pretty bad news for fish and animals as well as people.

Cotton production is incredibly water intensive, taking 10,000 litres to produce just 1 kilo of cotton and has contributed greatly to the depreciation of several lakes and rivers around the world, most notoriously being the Aral sea which shrank to a mere 10% of its original size due to its feeder rivers being rerouted to arrogate cotton plantations. 

The vast area where the Aral sea once was, is now just dusty salt land that is causing health issues for local residents, when the wind blows up the salty residue laden with pesticides across residential areas, the locals have been experiencing a range of breathing difficulties from inhaling this toxic cocktail. 
To put things in perspective, pesticides can cause really serious health problems from neurological diseases to cancer and leukaemia. It really is no joke, so when you think about the amount used to produce cotton and the devastation it can cause to nature, animals and humans it makes you think, is it worth it?

What can I use instead of cotton wool?

There are several things you could do to reduce or eradicate your cotton wool usage. 

If like me you use cotton pads to remove make up, then an easy swap would be reusable bamboo pads, they are about the same size as cotton pads so they still fit in the holder on my bedside table and I've got enough that I use one every night and then when I have about a week or two's worth I throw them in a little wash bag and sling them in the washing machine with the rest of my laundry, so simple.

Maybe you use cotton pads to remove your cleanser, well in which case why not invest in a muslin cloth to use instead, like this one from The Body Shop or a pack of two REN muslin cloths for £4.50. Just be aware that both of these muslin cloths are still made of cotton but at least they aren't single use and will last you quite a while.

If you are in the market for something truly sustainable it would be worth investing in an Angel Face Cloth which is made from konjac sponge vegetable fibres. It's all natural, gentle on the skin, PH neutral, and biodegradable. 

Other options:

Thanks for reading, I hope you learnt something from this post and it inspires you to make a change, no matter how small.


  1. I tend to use cloths with an oil-based cleanser to remove my makeup, though I've still not really found a replacement for using with an exfoliating toner...(though face mists can definitely reduce cotton wool usage)

    Jasmine xx

    Jasmine Talks Beauty

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